Wes: Last week we discussed a love affair that ended in marriage. This week we examine why that’s newsworthy. Marriage seems to be on the way out. It’s not gone yet, but it’s on the way. Among millennials, the median age for marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men, which should actually decrease the divorce rate. But wait, there’s more.
Many millennials will remain unmarried through age 40, dropping the marriage rate to 70 percent, down from 91 percent for boomers and 87 percent for Gen-X, and 25 percent are unlikely ever to marry. That’s the largest share in recorded history.
Over the years I’ve learned that what teens do is important, not simply because we care about them at a crucial turning point in their lives, but because they’re harbingers of our future culture. I have therefore been wondering of late where the next wave of teen “dating” might take us. The “hook-up” culture, which we’ve documented in Double Take well before it came to national consciousness, is growing long in the tooth, no longer reflecting today’s sexual revolution.
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Just this week that future wave came to me quite clearly in conversations with several young people. It’s polyamory — the practice of open romantic involvement with more than one partner. For those steeped in a culture of casual sex over the past 20 years, this may seem like a pretty boring news flash. But it’s a real shift in thinking. Amid the chaos of that culture, teenage girls (for the most part) are still trying to systematize and define their relationships with others, and one way they’re getting that done is to set rules for multiple engagements. Before we get too flustered about this, let’s remember that the current system of random hook-ups, friends with benefits or exclusive relationships reinforced with jealous stalking and infidelity hasn’t exactly worked out well for promoting long term coupling. Thus the decrease in marriage.
As everyone knows, I’m a big fan of monogamy. There’s nothing I love more than the love we wrote about last week. But I am prepared to concede the point that if young people are going to be non-monogamous, they’re better off doing it with the kind of rules and structure that polyamory offers. I’m just not convinced that 16-, 20- or even 22-year-olds have the maturity and experience to pull off what many seasoned adults have struggled to get right.
Gabe: Each generation is rebellious in their own little way. These rebellions turn into convention as that generation ages and the next generation rebels even further against these. From the perspective of my generation, I find it funny that boomers see themselves as pioneers of the "sexual revolution" brought by birth control, while millennials (and Gen-Zers recently) have taken even further strides from this new normal due the internet. It'a no surprise these new views on relationship would bubble to the surface.
The cultural view of marriage today is certainly not one that held for most of history. While we now view it as symbolically joining two people in love, in the past it was a business contract between the groom and the father of the bride, and a very profitable one at that. This reinvention of marriage as romantic is fairly new, so the lower rates of marriage could honestly be seen as a reaction to this. There are still a lot of legal and personal benefits to marriage, but it just isn't everyone's style.
At first glance polyamory seems like a great way to get hurt. This can certainly be the case, but as long as everyone shares the same level of information and is forthcoming about their feelings on the matter, the odds of this happening are greatly reduced. Like Wes, I wouldn't favor it for myself — maybe because I’m just selfish — but as long as everyone is on board there seems to be no reason for stopping anyone.
Love is always changing. Artists tend to romanticize love as a steady constant throughout history. But the truth is that the path each generation takes to get there is notably different from the last. Perhaps I’m a shmuck for buying into the Valentine-Industrial complex, but I think that love will always remain strong through these changes.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at dr-wes.com. Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.